A Love Letter to Normal Heights
By Henry Garfield
(page 1 of 3)As I prepare to leave San Diego after 16 years here, to take my up-and-down writing career back to the East Coast where it began, I’ve begun asking myself why a kid from the coast of Maine has allowed himself to grow middle-aged in Southern California. There must be something in this indifferent, overcrowded urban jungle to like.
Well, I like my neighborhood.
My neighborhood is Normal Heights, and in the past seven years I have come to love it as much as a man can love any unfaithful partner. I will think about it, and miss it occasionally, after I’m gone.
I came to Normal Heights in 1992, the year Clinton was elected, nine years after my arrival in San Diego. A job brought me. For two years I edited the Adams Avenue Post, a monthly newspaper put out by the Normal Heights Community Development Corporation, a group of dedicated volunteers fighting a valiant battle against crime and overdevelopment and the decay that overtakes poorer sections of growing cities. It was a good job, I liked it, and it didn’t last. The paper lost its office, its advertising manager and most of its operating budget before going out of business in 1994. I stayed.
Normal Heights is a walking neighborhood. I suppose that is what I like best about it. My job was within walking distance of the three-bedroom house I rented on Mansfield Street. The house was within walking distance of the bluff that overlooks Mission Valley, directly above the stadium where the Padres and the Chargers play. On the Fourth of July we’d go up on the roof and watch fireworks, and when the Rolling Stones played there I listened to the concert on my front porch.
In this age of the automobile, you can walk the length of Normal Heights, greet your neighbors, shop at small, noncorporate businesses, watch a Little League baseball game at the park that was built by the same group that published the Post. It’s real. It has none of the self-conscious hipness of the beaches or downtown; none of the planned soullessness of newer communities like Tierrasanta and Rancho Bernardo. Vacant storefronts and thrift shops vie for space along Adams Avenue, the main drag, together with those few established businesses that give the place its character.
It can be a pretty neighborhood, too, especially in late spring when the jacaranda trees are in bloom and the owners of single-family homes along Mountain View Drive tidy their yards and tend their birds-of-paradise and other flowers. Waving to my neighbors on their front porches as I go by gives me a sense of what San Diego must have looked like before the proliferation of high-density apartment buildings and housing developments.
I like the park—part ballfield, part school playground, part blanket/bleacher section at live music events. The park is adjacent to Adams Elementary School, which my children attended. A low sitting wall curves around the little kids’ playground. The wall is embedded with shells, tiles and other objects and hundreds upon hundreds of handprints, mine and my children’s included. Proverbs in many languages have been scratched into the cement. The art has escaped the graffiti that proliferates elsewhere around the neighborhood. Pete Evaristo, the artist who supervised the project, sat on the Post’s editorial board and has been instrumental in bringing public art to Normal Heights. It is a better neighborhood because of his efforts.
Evaristo also is one of the contributors to the line of banners that have graced Adams Avenue since September 1998. The mile-long, 120-piece project, titled Adams Avenue: A Work in Progress, is a collaborative venture by a dozen local artists. The project was funded by the Adams Avenue Business Association with a matching grant of $15,000 from the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.
“The whole point of public art,” Evaristo tells me, “is to get the artwork off the gallery walls and into the street, where people can see it and talk about it.”
Evaristo came to the neighborhood some 20 years ago while studying art at SDSU. His thesis centered on the large Normal Heights sign hanging over Adams Avenue at its intersection with Felton Street, where Pepé’s Produce and a liquor store stand today. The sign had fallen into disrepair, reflecting the state of the neighborhood. The neon had long since leaked from the letters, and the paint had cracked and faded.
Today it glows brightly over the avenue, the words in thin pale blue against a maroon and darker blue background. Sometimes letters go out, producing unintentionally funny messages. For some months the east-facing side of the sign read Norml Heights, giving the impression that the folks who want to legalize pot had set up headquarters here. Lately I’ve been living in Normal eights. The business association always gets around to fixing it eventually.